An on-line solid phase extraction coupled with high-performance liquid chromatography in tandem with mass spectrometry (on-line SPE/HPLC/MS-MS) method for the determination of five microcystins and nodularin in surface waters at submicrogram per liter concentrations has been optimized. Maximum recoveries were achieved by carefully optimizing the extraction sample volume, loading solvent, wash solvent, and pH of the sample. The developed method was also validated according to both UNI EN ISO IEC 17025 and UNICHIM guidelines. Specifically, ten analytical runs were performed at three different concentration levels using a reference mix solution containing the six analytes. The method was applied for monitoring the concentrations of microcystins and nodularin in real surface water during a sampling campaign of 9 months in which the ELISA method was used as standard official method. The results of the two methods were compared showing good agreement when the highest concentration values of MCs were found. Graphical abstract An on-line SPE/HPLC/MS-MS method for the determination of five microcystins and nodularin in surface waters at sub μg L(-1) was optimized and compared with ELISA assay method for real samples.